7 books set in India

Even before I traveled to India a couple years ago, I loved reading fiction written by Indian authors. I admired their writing style, often so magical or lyrical that it totally transported me to a country I initially never really cared to visit. If you’re thinking of taking a meaningful trip to the subcontinent or just trying to expand your reading list, here are 7 books about India I really enjoyed reading. Only one (An Area of Darkness) is written by a non-Indian author but I think his insights about the country, its people, and its culture are still worthwhile.

1. An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul

This is a travelogue written by Trinidadian author, Naipaul, on his first visit to India in the 1960s. It captures his contradictory feelings about the homeland of his ancestors. In fact, it’s part of a trilogy of books Naipaul wrote about the subcontinent.

“It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad. And it is well that they have no sense of history, for how then would they be able to continue to squat amid their ruins, and which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain? It is better to retreat into fantasy and fatalism, to trust to the stars in which the fortunes of all are written.” 

2. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This Booker Prize winner was written in 1980 and details the transition of India from British colonialism to independence and partition. It’s told with a heavy dose of magic realism, similar to the craft of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I”, everyone of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.”

3. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Published in 2006, this is the second novel of Kiran Desai (also the daughter of another famous Indian author on this list). It explores the immigrant’s experience from India to the US as well as the realities of those left behind.

“This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time. How wonderful it was going to be to have things otherwise.”

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This was the author’s first and highly acclaimed novel that reveals the dark secrets of a Christian family in Kerala. It’s highly descriptive and sometimes controversial.

“Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question.

Perhaps Ammu, Estha and she were the worst transgressors. But it wasn’t just them. It was the others too. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly.” 

5. Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

This is a fantastic introduction to the heart-rending consequences of the partition of India in 1947, as seen through the eyes of a Parsee girl.

“There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is?
I ask Cousin.
‘Rubbish,’ he says, ‘no one’s going to break India. It’s not made of glass!”

6. Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai

This novel is set in Old Delhi and demonstrates the tension between members who left and who stayed behind in the family home.

“It seemed to her that the dullness and the boredom of her childhood, her youth, were stored here in the room under the worn dusty red rugs, in the bloated brassware, amongst the dried grasses in the swollen vases, behind the yellowed photographs in the oval frames-everything, everything that she had so hated as a child and that was still preserved here as if this were the storeroom of some dull, uninviting provincial museum.” 

7. Malgudi Days by RK Narayan

This is a collection of sharp and often hilarious short stories set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi written by one of India’s most influential 20th-century authors. VS Naipaul has also shared his early admiration for Narayan.

“Half of the enchantment of the place was due to the fact that it did not have the benefit of municipal lighting.”

How many have you read? What did I miss? Share in the comments below!